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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: Thoughts about why ‘Wicked’ works

The hit musical is in its last lap of its third run in Appleton.

PHOTO: Alison Luff stars as Elphaba in the production of “Wicked” playing at Appleton’s Fox Cities Performing Arts Center. Production photo

APPLETON, Wis. (WFRV) – After more than a decade of existence and widespread performances, including three substantial runs at Fox Cities Performing Arts Center, it’s obvious that “Wicked” is a force. A review may seem pointless, but everybody going to the show is a reviewer in a sense. Some like analyses, so here I go with my take on why “Wicked” works. (5 stars out of 5; performances continue through Sunday, March 2; info: www.foxcitiespac.org).

A. Layers.

Characters are multidimensional. Glinda (or Ga-linda) seems giddy sweet until the sugar melts off. Elphaba has green skin, which automatically off-turns many by way of knee-jerk bias (which can be transferred to comment on society as a whole). Elphaba’s sister, Nessarose, is unable to walk and faces a common set of rejections experienced by many people. Fiyero is vapid and “deeply shallow” (one of the show’s clever turn of a phrase) until thinking surfaces. Boq wrestles with matters of size and loyalty for the sake of true devotion. And on the nuances go, engaging all along. It’s all made-up fiction, but there are ample points of reference to life around us.

“Wicked” layers in familiar bits from “The Wizard of Oz.” Such phrases as “no place like home” and “my pretty” take on new meaning. Of significant importance: Elphaba, in her form as a wicked witch, lets out a huge, evil cackle (to which the audience I was with let out a giant cheer of approval).

While “Wicked” is drawn from “The Wizard of Oz” and tosses in many references to that story and its catchphrases, “Wicked” stands alone, too. It has a story of its own. The songs of “Wicked” don’t borrow from “The Wizard of Oz.” The characters can exist without “The Wizard of Oz,” though they certainly owe their existence to the original.

“Wicked” makes full use of the layering found in the kind of/sort of American invention – musical theater. Music theater fuses story, song/music and dance/movement to express a multitude of thought and expression in condensed moments in time. Around the same melody in the same scene, Elphaba and Glinda offer individual feelings and also say things with their body language. In two key scenes, they tell of their sameness and differentness. The show runs 2¾ hours, and it’s a dense 2¾ hours for all its layers.

B. Care of production.

The producing entity (a collaborative with more arms than an octopus, it seems) makes sure audiences anywhere get an experience worthy of the high prices being paid for tickets. The edition that’s visiting Appleton has a strong, deep cast. The audience I was in at the matinee of Saturday, Feb. 22, cast its votes heartily in favor of most everybody, with a bit of restraint, with which I agree, for Tom Kazurinsky as The Wizard. That matinee included a major stand-in performance by Nikki Boyd as Glinda, and Boyd certainly was ready, willing and able to fit in seamlessly, save for a skipped beat on one entrance).

C. Dynamism at the top.

Elphaba and Glinda are horses of roles. They are filled with evolution and revolution. The roles demand energy akin to that delivered by elite athletes, performance after performance. Elphaba is a notch above with its calls for full-out, heart-torn singing. This production features the wondrous Alison Luff as Elphaba. The curtain call at the performance I attended was a rush when Luff and Boyd arrived to take their bows together – a thrilling, loud, ecstatic outpouring of approval from the hall as a whole. I’ve seen thousands of performances, and that response was really nice, right up there toward the top, and it was in a large part for Luff and Boyd.

D. Creativity.

Inspired by the novel by Gregory Maguire, Stephen Schwartz (music and lyrics) and Winnie Holzman (book) let their imaginations fly. With “Wicked,” Schwartz qualifies as one of the masters of musical theater of our time, building upon such previous hits of his as “Godspell” and “Pippin.” His score is a solid workout for an orchestra, which in this case is excellent.

My experience had a speed bump. I bought my ticket on site the day of the performance, asked for a balcony seat (“cheap seat” being an ironic phrase when the price is $89) and found a railing bar in the way of my being able to see the stage fully. My feeling is that seat is of lesser value than the others around it. There may be others. A woman who was seated in the row behind me in the first act sat in the second act in the also bar-impaired seat to my left, which may have been an improvement on her original seat. I buy my tickets (and am reimbursed by WFRV) so I don’t receive royal treatment and find out what perspectives other folks may have. The show’s great, my seat wasn’t.

Of a general nature, I have some questions. The set (fabulous and bursting with visual enticements) includes a dragon-type gargoyle hanging/moving above the stage). The piece doesn’t drive the story. Why is it there? Also, about Elphaba’s character: Why should her sexual awakening be something she feels is wicked? That’s a twisted thought about something normal.

Cast (for most performances and in order of appearance)

Glinda, Gina Beck

Witch’s Father, Kevin McMahon

Witch’s Mother, Marina Lazzaretto

Midwife, Dina Bennett

Elphaba, Alison Luff

Nessarose, Jenny Florkowski

Boq, Jesse JP Johnson

Madame Morrible, Alison Fraser

Doctor Dillamond, Tom Flynn

Fieyro, Nick Adams

Ozian Official, Kevin McMahon

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Tim Kazurinsky

Chistery, Raymond Joel Matsamura

Monkeys, Students, Denizens of the Emerald City, Palace Guards, and Other Citizens of Oz: Shayla Beck, Dina Bennett, Nikki Bohne, Lauren Boyd, Kyle Brown, Nirine S. Brown, John Carroll, Rick Desloge, Timothy A. Fitz-Gerald, Sheila Karls, Trevor Ryan Krahl, Rebecca Kritzer, Marina Lazzaretto, Raymond Joel Matsamura, Jonathan McGill, Kevin McMahon, Shanon Mari Mills, Daniel Switzer

Orchestra (traveling): Andrew Graham, conductor; Adam R. McDonald, Adam Laird and Sean Greiner, keyboard; Lou Garrett, guitar; Greg Germann, drums; Christopher Jahnke, adaptation of orchestrations. Local musicians: Marc Jimos, Jennifer Bryant and Rich Tengowski, reeds; Brent Turney, trumpet; Rob McWilliams and (sub) Jayne Latva, keyboard; Dave Sawall, trombone; French horn, Bruce Atwell; Mark Urness, bass; Ryan Korb, percussion; Melissa Gurholt, local musician contractor.

Musical numbers

Act I

“No One Mourns the Wicked” – Glinda and Citizens of Oz

“Dear Old Shiz” – Students and Galinda

“The Wizard and I” – Madame Morrible and Elphaba

“What Is This Feeling?” – Galinda, Elphaba and Students

“Something Bad” – Doctor Dillamond and Elphaba

“Dancing Through Life” – Fiyero, Galinda, Boq, Nessarose, Elphaba and Students

“Popular” – Galinda

“I’m Not That Girl” – Elphaba

“One Short Day” – Elphaba, Glinda and Citizens of the Emerald City

“A Sentimental Man” – The Wizard

“Defying Gravity” – Elphaba, Glinda, Guards and Citizens of Oz

Act II

“No One Mourns the Wicked (Reprise)” – Citizens of Oz

“Thank Goodness” – Glinda, Madame Morrible and Citizens of Oz

“The Wicked Witch of the East” – Elphaba, Nessarose and Boq

“Wonderful” – The Wizard and Elphaba

“I’m Not That Girl (Reprise)” – Glinda

“As Long as You’re Mine” – Elphaba and Fiyero

“No Good Deed” – Elphaba

“March of the Witch Hunters” – Boq and Citizens of Oz

“For Good” – Glinda and Elphaba

“Finale: For Good (Reprise)” – All

VENUE: Thrivent Financial Hall is the main theater of Fox Cities Performing Arts Center on College Avenue in downtown Appleton. The capacity is 2,072, though that is altered for “Wicked” to accommodate the pit orchestra set-up. For “Wicked,” two sets of front rows arc around the orchestra pit. The hall’s overall seating area is in the shape of a horse shoe, with three balconies following the shape. The stage is 60 feet across and 40 feet high. The décor features Veneciano plaster walls with dark-stained cherry wood. In the oval dome ceiling is a 65-foot long chandelier that is reminiscent of the Art Deco era. The design includes ruby inserts in the opaque cream-colored glass. Flowing along the walls are parallel metal pipes as if of a musical instrument. The lobby area consists of lots of geometrics, glass and, on the ground level, a feeling of openness and spaciousness. The exterior of the gray building features gentle curves. A large glass skylight is reminiscent of a human eye.

You may email me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air features on WFRV between 6 and 8 a.m. Sundays.

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